An Inside Look at Prison Ministries
- 2005 21 Dec
Robert Robinson stood weeping while wearing handcuffs. But while his body was shackled, his heart was free.
Still a prisoner at the time, in October of 2003, Robinson received permission to attend the funeral of his stepson, who had died in a house fire. Having been born again while participating in the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) program at Newton Correctional Facility in Iowa, Robinson addressed a funeral crowd that included his unsaved wife and mother as well as gang members with whom he used to deal drugs.
"I was able to get up and speak and give my testimony about my experience with Jesus," said Robinson, 25, who has since been released and will be spending his first Christmas outside prison in nearly five years. "I asked my family for forgiveness for what I had done. I had an alter call and 90 people at the funeral were saved. It was amazing to see, plus a comfort to know my son did not die in vain."
During his testimony, Robinson told of how he used drugs to gain acceptance among other gang members and of how prison life really is a cry for help.
"For me, there was an answer for that cry," he said, explaining how IFI provided a life purpose. "There is so much help for men who really want to change their lives. That's what the program is about."
Robinson paused, "A lot of men come to the program and leave it, for numerous reasons. Guys don't want people to know they have a heart. But when God began to change my heart, I began having new desires to get a new heart."
Robinson's testimony, and others like it, are spread throughout the country; men who follow the path from social troublemaker to redeemed helper. It is the story of a down-and-outer who found God behind bars and now helps others find Him on the outside.
It is the post-prison experience that has become the exciting new vision of Prison Fellowship, which is the parent organization of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative. As successful as IFI has been inside prison walls -- those who complete the program show much lower rates of recidivism -- the rubber-meets-the-road aspect of the program is what takes place once an inmate leaves the cellblock behind.
"We really believe the future of prison ministry is working with prisoners when they're released," said Mark Earley, president and CEO of Prison Fellowship USA. "What it looks like is local churches stepping up to the plate and saying they're willing to work with (integrating) inmates into their congregation."
Prison Fellowship currently offers a training program that helps churches assimilate former inmates into the flock.
"That can be done anywhere, in any community," Earley said. "We're finding more and more churches are becoming interested."
That's a change from the past, when churches were willing to send members into prisons to minister but were not excited about opening the doors at home, Earley said.
What churches are beginning to realize is that redeemed prisoners often have powerful messages of God's restoration, grace and forgiveness.
For Earley, that epiphany occurred in December of 2001 while studying the book of Exodus. Before then, the former state senator and attorney general of Virginia (1998-2001) respected prison ministry but wasn't sure if it was something in which he wanted to invest his life.
"I had just lost (an election bid) to become governor of Virginia and was in a waiting period to see what to do next," he said. "I had a high regard for Prison Fellowship and (founder) Chuck Colson ... but my thought was that I want to invest in people who can make a difference, and the attitude of a lot of people is that prisoners are losers."
In reading Exodus, however, Earley was confronted by the background of Moses - and incredible prophet and yet a murderer and fugitive from justice when God first approached him.
"Then I'm reading Acts, where Paul is the first person to take the gospel beyond the Jewish nation ... and this is a man who is a co-conspirator in murder, who by his own admission was a violent man," Earley said. "If God had not chosen Moses or Paul, in most states they would be in prison for 20 years to life."
Earley came to realize that God uses the most broken of vessels to become his spokesmen.
"Because then the world understands you can be broken and still have a future with God," he said.
Soon after gaining these insights, Earley took over leadership of Prison Fellowship. It is the testimony of Robinson and others like him that makes Earley certain that he made the right choice.
Through IFI, Robinson grew in his faith and learned how to relate to other men through grace, not gang acceptance.
"My best friend in the program was a Muslim. You don't have to be a Christian," Robinson said. "But the change in him was awesome because the program teaches good values. Maybe there are a lot of the counselors who rejoice if you become a Christian, but that's not their goal. Their goal is to see a changed life and for you to go forward and not backward, to use your past as a faith builder to continue to be successful in life and to love on others instead of using your past as a copout and scapegoat because you're afraid."
Robinson has worked as a welder since gaining his freedom in March. He is knitted into his church community and continues to testify to the grace of God and benefits of prison ministry.
Soon after beginning his job, a co-worker gave Robinson his used pickup truck.
"He said, 'You don't owe me anything for it,'" Robinson said. "Before, if I had not gone through the (IFI) program, I'd have taken that truck and sold it, gotten money from a free truck. Now, I want to give that truck to somebody else who is in the same situation I was in. That's what it's all about."